Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival 2019

Every year in November, thousands of spectators and contestants converge in Taunggyi, the capital city of Shan State, Myanmar to celebrate the Tazaungdaing Festival of Lights. Informally known as the “Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival”, it is always a spectacular affair combining cultural tradition, communal competition, artistic beauty and danger.

The annual fire balloon festival marks the end of the monsoon and also Buddhist lent. As part of the second festival of lights, it celebrates the triumph of wisdom over the darkness of ignorance. Indeed, the light show above the Awayyar Balloon Field in Taunggyi is an incredible display of fireworks.

The festival takes place in a carnival atmosphere with an assortment of wide ranging attractions such as games, carnival rides, loud music and food. Indeed, the event is extremely crowded. I would estimate there were at least 75,000 people at the festival on both nights that I attended.

Taunggyi-Carnival-2
At the carnival surrounding the balloon field there are activities for everyone to enjoy.
Photo taken from the balloon field as night falls and preparations are being made for the main event.

Transportation to Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival

If you are lucky you can get good accommodations in Taunggyi near the Awayyar Balloon Field – the focal point of the festival. However, it can get expensive because hotel proprietors are reputed to raise prices by up to 50% during the festival.

Additionally, take note that the festival is several kilometers outside downtown Taunggyi – too far to walk. Therefore, if you stay downtown, you will need transport. If so, get in line because there will be a long wait, especially if you are going by car or truck.

Taunggyi transport
The line of cars runs as far as the eye can see for both ways on the road to the balloon field.

By far, the most efficient method of transportation is a small 110cc motorbike. This was what I used and it was very effective.

Taunggyi motorbike
They put a cool sticker on the tail pipe for me – “Don’t Try This”.

Also to avoid the crowds and price gouging, I stayed in Nyaung Shwe which (under normal conditions) is about a 45 minute drive to the Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival. However, these conditions are far from normal and it took me about about an hour and a half to get to the balloon field.

But getting back is the hard part! Fortunately, with the help of a friendly local, I managed to dodge the traffic jam and made it home in about two hours. The second night was a bit easier because I knew the way already.

Taunggyi fire Balloon festival transport options
To avoid the inevitable traffic jam, I would suggest renting a motorbike. If so, you can drive on the road shoulder and beat the traffic.

Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival Contestants

The Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival contestants travel from around the country to compete. Additionally, the teams travel as an entourage including the balloon technicians, musicians, dancers and sometimes corporate sponsors. It is certainly a team effort to get the balloon aloft from both a technical and spiritual perspective.

Taunggyi Fire Balloon teams
The teams bring musicians and dancers with them who wave flags while dancing to traditional drums. This is the spiritual aspect of the fire balloon festival.
Taunggyi Fire Balloon team
The balloon equipment is transported to the center of the field when called by the contest officials.

Setting Aloft the Taunggyi Fire Balloons

The balloons are really giant Chinese paper lanterns up to 15 meters in height. Additionally, they carry a large cargo of fireworks which is fixed in place of the basket on a pallet.

Indeed, setting alight the fireworks is a precarious process and there have been recent fatalities from premature explosions. Fortunately, on both nights I attended, there were no accidents at the Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival in 2019 (to the best of my knowledge).

inflating the balloon
The balloon is unpacked and filled with hot air using fire lit torches.
fire balloon filling
When the balloon is fully inflated the wick is inserted and the torches are brought outside and extinguished. The wick burns inside the balloon and propels it higher after it leaves the ground.

The next step is potentially dangerous because if the fireworks prematurely explode it can be fatal to contestants and bystanders. Perhaps I was a bit complacent, but there were no mishaps while I was there. I spent the entire time on the balloon field watching the crews work and enjoying the festivities.

After the balloon is fully inflated and the wick is inserted, the pallet of fireworks is attached, set alight and released into the night sky.

Although none of the balloons I witnessed exploded on the ground, on one occasion the fireworks went off while it was still low in the air. This was actually quite exciting and made great content for a dramatic HD video of the event.

Taunggyi Fire Balloon
This balloon started its fireworks show while at a low elevation.
The balloon continued higher for a brilliant display of fireworks.

However, most of the balloons are flawlessly crafted and the firework show does not begin until they are well above the ground.

Taunggyi Festival
A fire balloon is being launched behind me above the balloon field.

Elegance of Taunggyi Fire Balloons

Big fireworks displays and high risk bring the international appeal to the Taunggyi Fire balloon Festival. However, not all of the balloons carry fireworks. Indeed, there is a more elegant type of balloon which is also featured at the festival. This balloon is decorated with candles and carries huge elaborate trailing displays. 

Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival Elegance
Huge trays of candles are lit and hung onto the balloons.
Fire Balloon candles
These balloons are inflated using the same method, but they do not feature fireworks.

When the balloon is still on the ground, it is hard to make sense of the display. However, once it is aloft then it all makes better sense.

Huge field of candles waits to be attached to the fire balloon when it is set aloft.
Taunggyi Fire Balloon design
As the balloon slowly gains elevation, the crowd can anticipate what the design will reveal.

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